Warplanes level a hospital in the rebel-held half of Aleppo, Syria, killing one of the city’s last pediatricians. A Saudi-led military coalition bombs a hospital in Yemen. In Afghanistan, American aircraft pummel a hospital mistaken for a Taliban redoubt.
The rules of war, enshrined for decades, require hospitals to be treated as sanctuaries from war — and for health workers to be left alone to do their jobs.
But on today’s battlefields, attacks on hospitals and ambulances, surgeons, nurses and midwives have become common, punctuating what aid workers and United Nations officials describe as a new low in the savagery of war.
On Tuesday [5/3], the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to remind warring parties everywhere of the rules, demanding protection for those who provide health care and accountability for violators. The measure urged member states to conduct independent investigations and prosecute those found responsible for violations “in accordance with domestic and international law.”
But the resolution also raised an awkward question: Can the world’s most powerful countries be expected to enforce the rules when they and their allies are accused of flouting them?
The failure to uphold decades-old international humanitarian law stems from the failure to uphold a more recently established principle–the Responsibility to Protect (R2P)–which states:
Sovereignty no longer exclusively protects States from foreign interference; it is a charge of responsibility where States are accountable for the welfare of their people.
- The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
- The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
- The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
To be fair, the rise of non-state actors (terrorists) in conflict has made it harder to uphold humanitarian law–these parties do not play by the rules. But typically poor governance is a cause of terrorism, not a result of it. Regardless, the R2P is focused on the role of the state; if the R2P should be invoked when a state fails to protect its population from war crimes, how then can it not be invoked when the state is the primary perpetrator of such crimes?
Failure to uphold the R2P has enabled the current hurting stalemate in Syria, so rife with violations of international humanitarian law that we no longer bat an eye when a story comes across our news feed. You may be asking what exactly is International Humanitarian Law? What is human rights law? There is a lot of overlap, so a quick crash course:
International humanitarian law is also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict.
It is important to differentiate between international humanitarian law and human rights law. While some of their rules are similar, these two bodies of law have developed separately and are contained in different treaties. In particular, human rights law – unlike international humanitarian law – applies in peacetime, and many of its provisions may be suspended during an armed conflict.
International humanitarian law protects those who do not take part in the fighting, such as civilians and medical and religious military personnel.
Essentially, international humanitarian law exists to protect certain human rights of non-aggressors in conflict zones. Human rights are broader (economic / social, political / civil, cultural), and are also applicable during times of peace. Upholding human rights obligations is the key to preventing conflict (positive peace), upholding humanitarian law is meant to protect people’s rights when prevention fails.
It is not my contention that, absent the R2P, we would not see such blatant violations of international humanitarian law. The R2P was crafted in response to the realities of modern warfare, which is dominated by protracted social conflicts (as opposed to the interstate wars of old). The R2P is a positive, an innovation in international governance, but it has proven itself toothless. When the international community fails to adequately respond to the greatest violations of the R2P (when states themselves are the perpetrators of war crimes and violate international humanitarian law), it enables new conflicts to emerge and existing ones to fester by signaling that at the end of the day, when there are no other options but the use force, state sovereignty still trumps human rights. The R2P was just the naming of the beast–you still have to slay it.
Early detection of human rights violations through the U.N.’s Human Rights Upfront (HRuF) initiative and a greater focus on preventative peacebuiding are important advancements in international governance. But when a ruler is willing to plunge his country into civil war to hang onto his rule, the R2P must be there to counter him. The R2P should be the mechanism through which we alter the war calculus of such tyrants. Without this deterrent, the effectiveness of HRuF and preventative peacebuilding initiatives are severely curtailed.
The playbook for tyrannical rulers to resist democratic movements has been laid out by Assad–plunge your country into civil war, wait for terrorists to fill the power void of your failed state, and position yourself as the only actor who can fight the terrorists.
Then, when the international community calls for a political transition to end the fighting, the very parties that went to war to resist the will of the people (In this case Russia, Iran, and Assad himself)–parties with zero democratic credentials themselves–have the gall to invoke the idea of self-determination / respecting the will of the people.
This perversion of the concept of self-determination is particularly infuriating, given the incredible damage caused by an initial unwillingness to even engage the peoples democratic aspirations with dialogue instead of violence. Even if such calls did represent a legitimate pivot towards democratic values (which they most certainly do not), of course no meaningful election could ever take place in a war-zone.
Combined with current external realities–budget strained and war weary democracies are (for various reasons) not as committed in the fight for democracy as authoritarian regimes are against it–a tyrant will more often than not be able stay in power, at a huge cost to the people, the country, and the region.
This message–that the purported global champions of democracy and human rights cannot be counted on to support you (while the governments you oppose, which have the military advantage to begin with, will get significant external help)–is the only thing that can stem the tide of global democratization. This cannot be the message (that through our actions) the U.S and E.U. sends to people with democratic aspirations. Democratization is the only path towards modernization and sustainable development–it is truly “the worst form of government, except for all the others” as Winston Churchill famously stated.
Which is why I call for more military spending by wealthier democracies (and more evenly distributed, America should cut back) and U.N.Security Council reform. Acting preventatively is always the best option, when it is still an option. But when prevention fails, we cannot simply throw our hands up an say “oh well, prevention is not an option, guess there is nothing we can do.” In the face of slaughter, words ring hollow and inaction carries a cost as well.